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If ‘Old Man’ is Redford’s last film, he made a graceful exit

By Leonard Heldreth

The films this month follow the exploits of a gentlemanly bank robber from the past and explore some very contemporary conflicts in black and white relationships.

The Old Man & the Gun

David Lowery’s most recent film, The Old Man & the Gun, varies from his previous films: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the remake of Pete’s Dragon, and last year’s A Ghost Story. Starring Robert Redford (who was in Pete’s Dragon) and with Academy-Award-winning Casey Affleck (who was in Saints and Ghost Story) in a supporting role, the film caps its stellar cast with Sissy Spacek as the woman who charms Redford, even though she can’t quite make up her mind about him. Then there are Tom Waits and Danny Glover as Tucker’s henchmen in the Over-the-Hill gang.
The Old Man & the Gun tells the story of long-time bank robber Forrest Tucker, who was jailed 16 times but kept escaping, even from Alcatraz. The script is based on David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker article and focuses on Tucker’s career after 1981. As an opening title card says, the story is “mostly true,” calling up echoes of a similar statement at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Tucker began stealing as a teenager and just never stopped, because he enjoyed it and was very good at it.
Although he likes the money that the banks hand over to him, he admits he does it for the adrenaline rush of pulling off the perfect heist; he is addicted to robbing banks. Tucker has his routine down cold, and he is so polite and friendly with the tellers and bank staff that they tell the investigating officers what a nice man he was. He opens his coat to reveal a gun (the audience never sees it), hands the teller a satchel, and requests that it be filled. He handles all of this so serenely that most customers are not even aware that a robbery is taking place until he’s back out on the street. One of the customers who remains in ignorance during one of the hold-ups is John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a detective who becomes intrigued by Tucker’s smooth method of operation and tries to track him down.
Working with Tucker are two elderly men, Tom Waits and Danny Glover, both of whom have fun with their parts. Waits almost steals the film by telling an involved story about why he hates Christmas. Providing septuagenarian love interest is Jewel (Sissy Spacek), who apparently is modeled on Tucker’s third wife of the same name. The scenes between Jewel and Tucker are quite charming, even though it’s the first time Spacek and Redford have acted together. Despite being about bank robbing, this film has little violence, only one car chase and no gunfire–Tucker felt that if you had to resort to violence in robbing a bank, you weren’t a professional.
John Hunt (Tracy Affleck) serves as a counterweight to Tucker and comes to admire the robber’s professional style. With his wife and two daughters, his life as a lawman balances the on-the-run life that Tucker is forced to follow. Hunt has just turned 40 and feels at a dead end; he obviously envies Tucker’s life of doing what he does so well, but comes to realize that he also has a solid life with his wife and kids. One of the daughters asks Hunt if he’s going to catch Tucker, and when he says he doesn’t know, she says, “But if you caught him, then you wouldn’t be able to keep chasing him.” Hunt reluctantly agrees.
The Old Man & the Gun is not a ponderous allegorical film, but rather one that entertains by letting the audience see some first rate actors do what they do best. Yet it’s impossible not to see parallels between Tucker and Redford, both old men reluctant to give up what they do best (Redford is now in his eighties, and he has hinted this may be his last film as an actor). Several lines in the film have spinoffs to Redford’s career. He professes to Jewel, who raises horses, that he had never been on a horse before; it’s impossible to hear this without thinking of Redford as the Sundance Kid.
In a montage of Tucker’s escapes, there is a brief shot of the young Redford in prisoner’s stripes from The Chase. And so on. Clearly, one of Lowery’s goals was just to let Redford do what he does best (charm the movie-going audience), and he completely succeeds. This is not Redford’s greatest film, but it’s not shabby, either. If it turns out to be his last acting performance, he will have made a graceful exit.

 

The Hate U Give

An adaptation of Angie Thomas’s 2017 Young Adult novel, The Hate U Give takes its title from a Tupac Shakur song about the way hatred and violence, imposed on young people, come back to flourish and proliferate as the children grow up. The film, directed by George Tillman Jr., focuses on racial violence, police brutality, and the difficulties of finding balance with one foot in each of two worlds, but it also emphasizes how family and friends can help ameliorate the problems of prejudice, drugs, and race conflicts. It’s a very powerful and moving look at a subset of contemporary young adult life with which most of us have little direct experience.
This coming-of-age film focuses on 16-year-old Starr (Amandla Stenberg), but it opens with an earlier scene in which she is nine, her older brother, Seven, (Lamar Johnson) is ten, and Sekani (TJ Wright), the youngest member of the Carter family, is just a year old. They are sitting around the kitchen table where her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), is giving them “The Talk,” a set of direction on how black people should behave if they are ever stopped by a white policeman. All hands go on the dashboard of the car, and they keep quiet, not disagreeing with anything the policeman says. As we expect, failing to follow these directions will lead to disaster later in the film.
The scene then moves ahead seven years. Starr still lives in Garden Heights, a poor and crime-infested section of town where her father owns a grocery, but she and her brother Seven attend Williamson Prep, a private school in a wealthier part of town. Starr changes her “codes” (the way she talks, what she says, how she dresses and acts) when she moves from home to school and back. When she is at home, she follows the codes of Starr 1; at school, she is Starr 2. She manages this juggling act until one night she goes with a black friend to a party where a fight and gunfire break out. An old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), whom she hasn’t seen recently, is at the party and offers to get her out of the melee, but on the way to her home, the couple is stopped by a policeman. The white cop thinks that a hairbrush in Khalil’s hand is a gun and shoots him; Starr is handcuffed and waits for the ambulance as Khalil bleeds to death beside her.
The rest of the film follows Starr’s ordeal as she tries to decide whether to give her eye-witness account to a grand jury, putting herself and her family in danger from the local drug-dealer, or to let Khalil’s death be just another statistic in the history of white-black murders. Further complicating the story is the feedback from some of her schoolmates at Williamson Prep, who cannot understand her rage at what has happened. Then there is her Uncle Carlos (the rapper Common), a black policeman who tries to explain to her the policeman’s point of view, even though he can’t condone it. Finally there is the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who doesn’t want the police to find out that Khalil was dealing drugs for him, and who hovers over the rest of the film like a malignant spirit.
Starr’s transformation from a shy girl caught between two camps to a powerful woman leading a march to protest Khalil’s death is impressive, and Amandla Stenberg is excellent throughout. All of the cast is solid, with Russell Hornsby and Algee Smith especially outstanding. The film is a powerful exploration of the pressures brought down on Starr because of what she sees and who she is, and it pulls no punches in exploring racism in all its manifestations. The Hate U Give should be seen by everyone, especially those who, like Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris, think they are color blind.
They aren’t.

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